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Punctuality May Not Be Essential Job Function

    Client Alerts
  • July 27, 2007

Most employers assume that requiring an employee to show up for work on time is within their rights.  However, a recent decision from the Eleventh Circuit Court of appeals casts doubt on an employer's refusal to accommodate a disabled employee whose medical condition interfered with his ability to meet expectations regarding strict punctuality.  The case, Holly v. Clairson Industries, LLC, involved an injection mold operator who was a paraplegic.  After 15 years of occasional tardiness problems relating to his medical condition, the employer adopted a "no-fault" attendance policy.  Where in the past, the employee was allowed to make up his tardiness by working late, under the new policy, he was subjected to strict attendance requirements.  After exceeding the maximum number of late arrivals allowed under the policy, the employee was terminated.  He sued, claiming that the employer had failed to accommodate his condition as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In response to the suit, the employer claimed that punctuality was an essential function of the employee's job, and that there was no feasible way to accommodate his inability to regularly report to work on time.  The employer also argued that the employee had never requested any specific accommodation.  The Eleventh Circuit reversed summary judgment for the employer, sending the matter to a jury trial.  The court stated that while punctuality may be an essential job function, strict punctuality as defined under the employer's new policy was not.  The employer could not articulate how being one minute late for work materially interfered with its production.  The defendant's case was also hurt by the fact that the employee had been a highly rated performer for 15 years prior to the policy change, and that he had been informally accommodated for years prior to the change without apparent burden.  Employers adopting strict attendance or other policies must understand that the ADA will sometimes require exceptions for employees with true disabilities.